Weep with those who Weep: Responding to tragedy
I’ve been radio silent. I announced it ahead of time, but still I feel like I should’ve said something. In the weeks since I’ve gone on hiatus several tragedies have happened. There was the Boston bombing, the plant explosion in the town of West, Texas, the factory collapse in Bangladesh, the huge surge in intentional violence in Iraq. Then there was this this:
The tornadoes and storms that swept through the American Midwest, disproportionately affecting central Oklahoma. In all of these tragedies, this one seemed to hit closest to me. I went to school in Shawnee. My wife and I lived in Oklahoma City. I still have relatives and friends in the Moore/Oklahoma City area. Maybe that was it. Maybe that’s why I’ve been a little shaken. Then there’s also the fact that I could see no cause for it.
A friend of mine recently asked me to respond to the tragedy in extended form, preferably on this blog. I wasn’t sure that was needed at first. After all many people could respond to it. They could offer the explanations or the comfort needed. Ultimately, I thought, that comfort and the answers to the “why” should come from God. But I was reminded gently that all of us need signposts sometimes to show us the way, or a mirror because God can’t be looked at face to face in our present bodies. So I hope that I can serve as a signpost or a mirror. This is my effort at that.
My personal Response
Before I get too involved in arguments about evil and so forth, I first want to give my response (if you want to argue with me, skip this section, I’m not offering arguments here). Not only to the Oklahoma tragedy, but to all of these tragedies, and others, this is my response:
This is not the end.
This tragedy does not have the final say. It is not over yet. The end is much better, much more joyous, and will make all past wrongs become right. God is changing this world, and the wickedness and evil and tragedy of the present world will be revealed to have never been. They are real and true and genuine right now, but they won’t always be. God is changing that. There is something else I want to convey:
You are not alone.
Suffer. Weep. Wail and moan. But know that you do not do so alone. Whoever you are, wherever you are coming from, know that God weeps with us. The beauty and joy of Emmanuel is that God comes along side us. Recall that Jesus wept over the death of his friend and wept over the city of Jerusalem. Know now that he weeps over the loss of these tragedies, and weeps for the towns and cities of West, Boston, Shawnee, Oklahoma City, Moore, and others. God is with you, as are others. God has given us a desire for community because these communities help sustain us in the midst of tragedy. When you are lifted up by your neighbor, that is God helping you as well. Above all else, understand that a key message of the cross is that outrageous suffering and pain is not foreign to God, but is something with which God is intimately acquainted. Jesus cried out “Why have you forsaken me” before declaring “It is finished.” Suffering is not something just to be explained away, but is at the heart of the Christian message. Finally, let me say one more thing:
You are not being punished.
God doesn’t seek the death of children. Tragedy is not the result of divine retribution. That was the mistake of Job’s friends. Something we need to understand is that sometimes, quite often actually, senseless evil is just that, senseless. As Jesus said, God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” This isn’t a divine indictment, or punishment that’s been withheld until now. It just is. And it is tragic. And it is not right. But that doesn’t mean God is absent, and it doesn’t mean that this is the final word.
If you are in the midst of a tragedy, I hope that offers a word of encouragement and hope for you. The Christian hope is not just that things will get better, but that the past will be made right, and we will see God face to face.
My intellectual answer
We ask “why” in the midst of these tragedies because of an emotional need. But the answer to the why demands an intellectual response. That doesn’t mean the question isn’t valid, only to illustrate that our felt desire is for our mental questions to be answered. Know, however, that such an answer is unlikely to satisfy while we are still grieving. So grieve first, and then contemplate. Find comfort in God and friends and family.
With tragedies that are clearly man made, we can usually point to an argument that says freedom is so important that God allows us to make mistakes, or even people to intentionally or callously harm others without interfering. But what about something like a tornado? It may be tempting to argue, as some have, that this is the result of man made climate change and so, ultimately a question of free will again. While there may be some connection between the frequency and intensity of these sorts of disasters to such kinds of change, they can’t explain away all the tornadoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis in the world. The thing is these things happen and will happen no matter how good of a steward we are of God’s creation. So we are seemingly confronted with this dichotomy:
Either God causes/approves of these natural disasters, or there is no God.
Many people, when faced with the idea of a God who, at the very least, approves of such horrendous activity, turn to atheism. But I’m going to offer another alternative. That is to say these aren’t the only two options. In order to understand what this alternative means, I’m going to get a little bit technical.
The Philosophical Side
In philosophy (and in quantum physics to a lesser degree) there is a concept known as ‘contingency.’ The term goes back at least to Aristotle, but it was really in the middle ages where it came into its own. Although Leibniz is often credited with advancing the concept of contingency, I consider his work with “possible worlds” to be a bit lacking. The basis for his work, and indeed the more robust interaction with the concept, can be found in the philosophy of John Duns Scotus.
Scotus argued that there are two categories under which everything falls: contingent and necessary. Primarily this is spoken of existing things. That is things like objects or actions, because to speak of necessary or contingent ideas, things that don’t have any real existence, seems bizarre. So we are talking about things with an ‘ontology’ or being or existence. Necessary things either necessarily exist, or necessarily don’t exist. If it necessarily exists, it always was, is, and has been. If it necessarily doesn’t exist, it never was, is, or will be. An example of the latter category would be a square circle, because by definition he two terms are mutually exclusive. In the former category we might put in certain mathematical concepts (though as I said, that gets trippy and into complex philosophy of mathematics), or, as Duns Scotus put it, God. Now I’m not going to argue that Scotus was correct on that point, or that Scotus wasn’t, that would take too much time and get very technical, and may be difficult to prove either way. What it does do, though, is illustrate that, for Scotus, there wasn’t a “possible world,” in Leibniz’s terms, where God doesn’t exist because God is a necessary being. It’s impossible for a necessary thing to ever not exist, thus there is no “possible world” without God.
If we now move to the contemporary engagement with the concepts of necessary and contingent, which takes place primarily in continental philosophy (the branch of philosophy with historical roots in Continental Europe and distinguished from Analytic philosophy with roots in Britain and America), we find some compelling arguments. These arguments relate to the necessity or contingency of certain objects or actions, but particularly things that have a causal influence upon the world (i.e. an impact beyond themselves).
If a causal influence, or an object/action that exhibits a causal influence, is necessary then the cause of that influence must also be necessary and the effects of that influence must likewise be necessary. This is because the necessary object/action that exhibits a causal influence must exist (there is no “possible world” where it doesn’t exist), so it’s causes and effects must likewise exist. This extends outward to the various other objects as well. In other words, it leads to a deterministic stream of events, at least if something is necessary by its ontos (existence) with respect to its causal influence.
Likewise if something is contingent (essentially “undetermined”) then all of its causes and effects are likewise contingent. This means that a contingent event is linked to all other events/objects upon which it has causal impact in that each event/object is likewise contingent. That leads to a string of contingent events.
When we talk about human freedom, at least how we usually think of it, this assumes something. It assumes that a person’s actions are non-trivial, that is they have a causal impact, that they are intended, as in non-random, and that they are contingent. (It should be noted that quantum physics uses contingency and randomness almost interchangeably and this is where it deviates from the philosophical concept.) So contingency, it turns out, is a prerequisite for human freedom.
In the context of what I’ve been arguing, then, if people are to be free, then that means everything that caused the existence of a person, as well as everything that a person does, must be contingent, or not necessary. It exists contingently. Further everything that affects a person as well as everything that a person affects causally must likewise be contingent. The result of this is inevitable:
Either everything in the created universe is contingent, or none of it is. Either certain events, like tornadoes, are random, or humans are not free. The cosmos is either entirely free or it is entirely bound and determined, and that necessarily so.
Admittedly I’ve simplified the argument a bit (we could get into the longer argument that speaks to things acting as wholes and so something cannot be necessary with respect to ‘x’ without being necessary with respect to every other aspect, but that would be much longer). If you want to get into the longer argument pick up some of the contemporary work on Duns Scotus, or some of the more recent German metaphysicians or non-Barthian theologians.
The Theological Side
Given that argument above (the bolded, italicized one), let’s move from philosophy to philosophical theology. The message of the bible is pretty clear on this point. The created universe must be contingent. If God created the world “in the beginning” then that means that the universe is contingent. If it were not, then God would be bound to create it and, therefore, not genuinely free. But even the most staunchly deterministic Calvinist will agree that God must be considered free if we are to believe that God is truly omnipotent.
Second, all will agree that God does not cause sin, and that, at the very least, the initial act of sin was a free act. If it was a free act then the entire universe must also be contingent. It’s too interconnected. This brings us to the crux of the argument, then.
If the universe is contingent, which the Bible says it is, then we can expect random events, like tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. to occur.
This may not help us understand why this or that disaster occurred, or even why it occurred in a specific way, but it does help us begin to understand why disasters of this sort occur at all. And that is a big step toward reconciling our faith with the reality of the world in which we live.
Why, though, did God not stop this particular disaster?
I’m afraid I don’t have any easy answer to this question. To offer such an answer would be to claim to know the mind of God, and I am finite while God is infinite. We have to acknowledge that while God didn’t cause the disaster, at the very least God didn’t intervene to stop it, at least not in any way of which we know. While I can see the appeal of Open Theism here, that God was just as surprised by the disaster as we are, I cannot affirm it, for I believe God is more sovereign than that. I can affirm a few things though.
At history’s end, God will make untrue every vile and wicked thing, everything that should be a lie will be shown to have always been just that.
God has already shown himself to be victorious in the resurrection.
Suffering and evil will be overcome and have already been overcome.
Terrible things happen. They will happen. That’s entailed in conscious existence. Just because they’re unnecessary, or without a point, doesn’t mean they won’t have a point. The pointless can be turned into purposeful things. If we take to heart the proclamation that we “are coworkers with God,” then we realize that a disaster is not merely a potential crisis of faith, but becomes a potential to partner with God in “making all things new.”
How can we participate with God, “following God’s example” by “redeeming the time because the days are evil”? Suffering and pain don’t have the final say.
Here are some ways to get involved:
You can donate. Donate, time, money, food, yourself, whatever you are able. Here’s a list of ways/organizations to do that related to the tornado.
You can Pray. Never underestimate prayer. God still intervenes and still responds. God’s heart is moved by the cries of his creatures.
You can be available. Sometimes we just need someone to hold us up when our strength is gone. We need that physical touch also. Often the best thing we can do is just sit, listen, affirm, and hug.